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United Kingdom: Belfast High Court Quashes Warrants Against Journalists, Leading to Case Being Dropped

(July 24, 2019) On May 31, 2019, the Northern Ireland High Court in Belfast ruled that search warrants executed on two journalists for journalistic materials seized during an investigation into the suspected theft of confidential documents from the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman’s office were “inappropriate.”  The Court recommended that the journalistic materials be returned. (Loughinisland: Journalists Arrested over Documents Investigation, BBC NEWS (Aug. 31, 2018); Mark Simpson, Loughinisland: Police Told to Return Journalists’ Papers, BBC NEWS (May 31 2019).)


On August 31, 2018, two journalists, Trevor Birney and Barry McCafferty, were arrested and their houses searched under warrant for suspected stolen confidential documents from the office of the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman. Documents and computer equipment were seized. The journalists, in coordination with Fine Point Films, were producing the documentary film No Stone Unturned, which examined the response of the Royal Ulster Constabulary to the murder of six Catholic men in a bar in 1994 by the Ulster Volunteer Force. (Loughinisland: Journalists Arrested over Documents Investigation, supra.)

The investigation into the alleged stolen documents was led by the Durham Constabulary, after a request from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), which desired to avoid any conflicts of interest. (PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton, Chief Constable’s Report to Northern Ireland Policing Board (Additional Information Requested by Board Members) 4 (June 6, 2019), Northern Ireland Policing Board website.) The PSNI provided a supporting role in the investigation. (Loughinisland: Police Drop Case Against Two Journalists, BBC NEWS (June 3, 2019).)

Fine Point Films immediately began emergency proceedings in the Belfast High Court to challenge the legality of the search warrants. The material was sealed, with police pledging not to examine any of the seized files, and Birney and McCafferty were released on bail after questioning. (Loughinisland: Raids on Offices ‘Like a Police State,’ BBC NEWS (May 28, 2019).)

The case received significant interest from human rights groups, including Amnesty International UK. (Press Release, Amnesty International UK, Northern Ireland: ‘Free Press Under Threat,’ Says Amnesty, as Investigative Journalists Face Further Police Questioning (Nov. 30, 2018), Amnesty International UK website.) The Index on Censorship and English PEN filed a written submission to the Court on May 17, 2019, arguing that the “application for and execution of the search warrants was wholly disproportionate.” (Press Release, Index on Censorship & English PEN, Free Expression Organisations Intervene in Case of Northern Ireland Investigative Journalists (May 22, 2019), Index on Censorship website.)

Aftermath of the High Court’s Ruling

Following the High Court’s ruling, it was confirmed in court on June 3, 2019, that all documents and equipment seized from the journalists would be returned to them. (Loughinisland: Police Drop Case Against Two Journalists, supra.) Later that day, the PSNI and the Durham Constabulary announced that the investigation into Birney and McCafferty would cease and they would be released from bail. PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton highlighted in his statement that “the suspected theft or unlawful leaking of any sensitive documents containing information that may endanger life is a serious matter which we are statutorily obliged to investigate.” (Hamilton, supra.) Human rights groups, such as Amnesty International UK, celebrated the ruling, with Programme Director Patrick Corrigan stating that Birney and McCaffrey had “won a famous victory for press freedom. If they’d lost, every investigative reporter in the UK would have been living in fear of a dawn raid by the police. It has been deeply troubling to see police trying to jail journalists who helped expose human rights abuses, rather than those who actually murdered six innocent people.” (Loughinisland: Police Drop Case Against Two Journalists, supra; Press Release, Amnesty International UK, Northern Ireland: ‘Victory for Press Freedom’ as Police Drop Case Against Investigative Journalists (June 3, 2019), Amnesty International UK website.)

Prepared by Kathryn McNickle, Law Library intern, under the supervision of Clare Feikert-Ahalt, Senior Foreign Law Specialist.